The dark never bothered her; neither did the shrill wails, rattles, and shadows. Kiva spent most of her life living in a tiny hut beside the old house. She sneaked into the ruined place from time to time. It was the only way of escaping the frosty winter nights or the never-ending wild rains.
The first time Kiva stepped in, the doors banged, the windows crashed. She ran as far as she could away from the horrible house. But, in less than a fortnight, she went again. The lure was too hard to resist. Ignoring the protests of the house, Kiva announced she would visit regularly.
“I will keep coming here. Deal with it.” She said in her childish voice.
And, forty years later, she lived in the house, still ignoring the protests. What else could she do when her parents did not wake up one December morning? No one was willing to give her shelter. Somehow, Kiva found ways that included stealing food and clothes, to survive. When the people thought she was a witch and refused to allow her anywhere near their homes, Kiva had to make do with what was available.
Many times she left the place, tried to make a living elsewhere. She traveled to a nearby city, only to come back to the old house. She was bound to it with invisible yet strong bonds. The agonized cries of women, the laughter of children, the random crashing of the rotten furniture became her constant companions.
Sweat trickled down her forehead and burned her eyes. Pressing a hand to her mouth to prevent the scream from revealing her presence, Sasthi crouched deep into the corner. It was sheer luck that the rusty old cupboard door opened just in time for her to sneak inside. The harsh voices hurling abuses at the escaped killer made her flinch. Sasthi prayed they wouldn’t check the cupboard.
“Go away!” The words screamed in her mind.
She’d get through it. For years, she was at his mercy. But, that night was too much for her to bear. One minute he was forcing her like every day, and the next instant he was gasping in horror as she thrust the knife into his heart. She had no idea, memory of grabbing the knife or stabbing him.
Seventy-two hours have passed. The truth crashed around her. She was no more a victim. She was a murderer. They wouldn’t understand why she killed him. They wouldn’t listen. Now, Sasthi was hiding from the police. Someone must have called them and informed about her. She had to escape, to run away. But, where?
Seventeen! Asma danced her way into her room at midnight. She’d have been under the covers reading a book and chatting with her bestie. But, it was her birthday. She got back home from the surprise party organized by her college friends. Her usually strict parents decided to cut her some slack that night.
Closing the door, Asma twirled in front of the mirror admiring the way the moonlight from the window made the gown shimmer. It reached her knees, making her look taller than her five feet two inches. The black curls framed her slender shoulders.
A sudden flicker caught her attention. She peered into the mirror and jumped back. Damn! Asma cursed the daily helper for the nth time. How many times had she told her not to leave the stool near the mirror? Rising from the floor, Asma wondered what surprised her in the first place.
There was a low sound outside the window. Asma stared into the night trying to what it was. The breeze kissed her face. Involuntarily closing her eyes, Asma sighed as images of her childhood floated into her vision. There was someone else with her. Who was it?
Great granny, the night whispered. No one in the family wanted to talk about her or the past. After being lectured by her parents to concentrate on her studies each time Asma asked, she gave up.
“Granny…” She murmured. Her senses felt a change in the atmosphere around her. Asma wanted to know. She tried to open her eyes, but her body was too relaxed to respond to her brain. Letting go, she drifted off into a deep sleep where her dreams were as vivid as reality.
A beautiful old woman said Asma was blessed.
“What is it?”
“Magic, my dear.”
Her hands trembled. Wrinkles adorned her skin like sea waves. Kiva often laughed at her appearance. She looked like a sixty-year-old than a woman of forty-five. The eyes that were probably beautiful once shrunk into narrow slits. The bony fingers and toes bled from time to time due to the wounds inflicted by the ‘odd’ jobs which kept her alive. Her coarse hair was hacked to the base of the neck with blunt scissors.
Standing on the terrace with no walls, Kiva understood the tremors were no longer random. Once in every forty-four minutes and thirty-five seconds, there was a mild jolt followed by a giggle or a burst of rasping laughter. Something was going to happen. Soon. Kiva had no intention of surrendering to fate or to the house.
As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Kiva knew she was responsible. It all started one night a month ago. She began wandering in the house, ignoring the cries when a new voice caught her attention. It was soft, yet mesmerizing and powerful. As if in a trance, Kiva followed the instructions and took a set of stairs to the basement.
It was dark, dirty and smelled of death. The voice urged her to take control of the house; to silence the protests and own the place. Kiva was tempted. She couldn’t resist when the voice told her to steal the tablet hidden in the northwest corner of the basement.
Standing under the moon, Kiva wondered how it’d end. Lights lashed far away. She turned to see what it was. Soon, there was a rumbling sound of a car engine. It was heading towards the house at full speed. Kiva was wary of going down to see who it was despite her curiosity. She missed noticing was the presence of another human being slowly making way to the house from the back gates.
Sasthi crept out of the cupboard to see it was pitch dark. Her stomach rumbled with hunger. Her vision turned blurry. It was more than 3 days since she had food.
Gathering her wits, Sasthi stumbled out of the house. She tripped, crawled and blindly moved through the shrubs and trees reaching the main road. The glaring headlights, the blaring horns and the mad rush of cars pushed her over the edge. She sank to the hard ground, curling into a small mass.
Tears flowed, soaking the earth. She cried for the six-year-old who lost her father one day and was sold to a gang the next day. She wept for the girl who grew up working 14 hours a day. She sobbed for the sixteen-year-old fancied by a man double her age. She mourned for the death of her heart when she was used a sex toy. She grieved the loss of her lover killed brutally while trying to free her from the clutches of her owner.
When she heard the police cars blaring nearby, she froze for an instant. Fear racked her tired body in violent shivers. But the persisting siren forced her to stand; to run for safety.
Will she ever be free? Did she not deserve sympathy? The questions haunted her as she ran across the plain field hoping it would lead her to safety. When Sasthi saw a distant structure, she was sure it was her imagination.
As she continued to walk, breathless from the never-ending run, she prayed for it to be real. Each step took her closer to the house. Sasthi felt a faint hope coming alive in her heart. Maybe, she could hide there. But, what if the owners of the place saw her? What if she was caught by someone who was no better than the man she killed?
Doubts nagged her exhausted mind. Her body was too weak to handle any of the questions. She would not think about being caught. A house as big would surely have a tiny place for her to hide. The house was in ruins. It cheered Sasthi a little until she noticed a figure standing on the terrace. The moon shone bright overhead. The sky was clear of clouds even as the smell of rain hung in the air.
Maybe she could sneak in unnoticed and rest for the night. Sasthi thought she heard a humming sound, but saw nothing. The back door was open, hanging loosely from the hinges as she gently pushed it. She stepped inside without a sound. The darkness enveloped, hiding her, swallowing her.
Asma wiped her tears trying to control the steering with one hand. Her life changed in less than twenty-four hours. Her parents weren’t home as usual when she got back from college. Deciding it was the right opportunity, Asma went to their bedroom and rummaged through the locker. She found the passcode by spying on her father for a week.
Apart from various case files, she got her hands on old photographs. Curious, Asma went back to her room after making sure their bedroom was same as ever. All was good until her mother walked into her room. Asma tried, really tried to explain it to her mother. She talked about her great grandmother, the legacy, the picture of the old house. It made her mother furious.
“What nonsense is all this, Asma? And, you stole from your dad’s locker?” Her mother yelled.
Her father arrived a few minutes later. The arguments escalated. “Magic is trash. Someone is making you a big fool. Why would only you inherit some stupid powers?”
“Dad, you can’t say that.”
“Of course, I can. My dad did not inherit, neither did I nor my sisters. Stop being stupid, Asma. Enough of this.” His voice shook. He wouldn’t let history repeat with his daughter. The buried memories flooded his mind.
“I will talk to her, you go.” Her mother told him in vain. She knew how it would affect her husband.
“Stay away from magic. It’s an order.” He thundered. As a young boy, he witnessed his family being humiliated and tortured because his grandmother was a witch. She cursed her own people when they asked her to stop it. It took him years to forget everything.
Asma waved her arm in frustration. She only saw the anger in her parents’ voice. It hurt her.
“No!” She shot back in a teenager’s rebellion. The mirror cracked and shattered. The books from the shelves fell to the floor. The bed rose high into the air. It was like watching a horror movie.
Asma shrieked and tried to stop whatever it was. She had no idea how to do it. There was no spell book to help her. The look on her parents’ face frightened her. Sobbing, she rushed out of the house. Asma wanted to get away. It was too much for her young mind to process. She needed to be alone.
Her parents shouted as she took the car out of the gates. It was illegal for her drive, but Asma did not care. She learned to drive a few weeks ago. Her dad let her drive in the empty ground nearby so that she could practice and improve her skill.
She ignored their calls speeding away as fast as she could, knowing they’d find her. One call to the police station would have her caught and taken back home. The only way to get away was to take a different route. Asma spied a tiny lane that could lead her away from the main route. She severed left and drove into the dark, bumpy road.
Asma took a few left and right turns unmindful of her destination. But, when she spied a big looming structure at a distance, she hit the brakes. The house was in the middle of nowhere. Something about the outline was familiar. Yes! It was the house in the pictures. Nervous excitement filled her veins. She wanted to see the inside. Who was it standing on the terrace?
Kiva walked back inside, clutching the tablet in her hand. What would she do with that thing? The main door creaked open. She hurried into the darkest corner of the hall to observe the newcomer and the reactions of the house. A lean frame tentatively stepped in and stood in the center of the hall. A mild fragrance of lilies reached Kiva. Her lips curved into an involuntary smile.
“Who are you?” Kiva asked in a loud voice.
The figure jumped. “I… am… I am Asma. Who are… you?” Her voice quavered.
“I’m Kiva. It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
Asma wasn’t sure about the last part, but she remained unmoving as a thin old woman dressed in rags walked towards her from the shadows. Her eyes widened. “Great granny?”
Kiva almost tripped when she heard it. Why was a teenager calling her granny; no, great-granny? She surely wasn’t that old. “What nonsense.”
“You look… like… I’m sorry. You… are.. umm… real, aren’t you?”
Kiva rolled her eyes at the girl. “Of course. Want to touch and see?”
Asma went closer to her, ignoring the sneer on Kiva’s face. “You need a bath.”
The house which went curiously silent until then laughed. Asma gripped Kiva’s arm. Before they could respond, something, rather someone stumbled into the hall from the corridor on the right.
“Oh my God!”
“Don’t hurt me!”
“Shut up!” Kiva’s voice cut through the hysterical jabber of the other two. “Who are you, now?”
“Sasthi.” The voice was barely audible. She was trembling like a dried leaf on a windy autumn night.
Kiva shook her head in disbelief. The silence of the house gave her chills. What was happening? They followed her into the room she called hers. It was most of the time, as clean as the house allowed it to be. That night, it was shining. There wasn’t a speck of dirt anywhere.
“Look, it’s better that you leave immediately,” Kiva said and added in a low voice. “This house is not safe. It is not just any old ruined building.”
Sasthi slumped to the floor. “Only for the night, please. I…”
“I… the police are searching for me. I killed a… man.”
Kiva knew better. She saw the age-old signs of abuse and torture. “I don’t care what you did. This house is not safe. Go, hide elsewhere.”
“Why did you kill him?” Asma whispered. Somehow she wasn’t least bit afraid of a woman who confessed to murder.
“He was… you are so young and beautiful. He purchased me when I was around your age. All my life, I’ve been a slave; one way or the other.” Sasthi murmured. “Why are you here?”
Asma felt silly. “I… umm… Was angry at my parents.”
Kiva snorted. “You are lucky to have parents who care, kid. Go home.”
Asma wasn’t sure, but the house was giving her a creepy feeling. Better she left. No sooner the thought formed in her mind, the house shook. The door to the room banged shut despite the lack of wind. Kiva tried to open it in vain.
“Why is it not opening?” Sasthi asked.
Kiva shook her head. She had no explanation. Could she tell them the house was haunted? The last thing she wanted was to handle two terrified humans at once.
“It’s haunted, right? I know it. That’s why I came here.” Asma’s babbler made no sense to either of the women.
“Make sense, girl.” Kiva snapped. Her nerves were stretched tight.
“You, the house, everything looks like in the photographs. Dad knew it. He never told me.” Asma sighed. “It’s okay. I’m not afraid. I will stay back.”
“What nonsense…” Kiva trailed off as the door opened. The girl wasn’t fazed though, not this time.
Sasthi continued to stare. She wondered if she was dreaming. Or maybe, she wasn’t even alive.
“Who are you, Asma?” Kiva asked. She stood with her arms on her hips, looking like a tired warrior.
Asma had no idea what to tell her. Finally, she decided to go with the truth. The words tumbled out from her as she expressed her love for magic, her frustration at not being able to learn and the disaster she created in her room when confronted by her parents.
“You are speaking the truth,” Sasthi said at last.
Asma nodded, relieved that someone understood her.
Kiva began to connect the dots. “Asma, this is for you.” She handed over the tablet.
“What do I do with this?”
“I don’t know yet,” Kiva responded when Sasthi took the tablet from Asma.
“I… think I know. These are the same patterns I saw in the… kitchen? I entered the house through the back door.” Sasthi replied.
“There are no patterns in the kitchen,” Kiva replied. A brick smashed against the wall beside her.
“Alright. Let’s go to the kitchen.” Kiva said suppressing a shiver. If the house was guiding them, they had no option but to follow.
Asma for the first time successfully used her magic to light a lamp. Sasthi showed the pattern on the east wall. It was close to the flooring and was covered with layers of dust. “I tripped here and fell. When I pressed my hand to the wall for support, I felt something odd.”
The wavy ridges were engraved on the wall while the same was embossed on the tablet. Sasthi pressed the tablet to the wall. Nothing happened. She gave it to Asma. Still, no result. Kiva wasn’t sure she should try, but she took it from Asma. Nothing.
“We are missing something.” Asma murmured, trying to think of a way. In her excitement, she couldn’t sense the danger looming over them.
“Let’s try together,” Sasthi advised.
A blinding light filled the place. They stumbled and fell to the floor. The wall cracked and crashed, the echo resounding in the house. One after another the walls collapsed around them. The three of them crawled and tried to run when the voices shrieked abuses at them. The bricks and furniture rose in the air, forming a whirlwind in the middle of the house.
“Stay together,” Kiva ordered, dragging Sasthi and Asma with her towards the back door. The house exploded sucking everything into the abyss. Kiva pushed the two of them outside when she was dragged into the gale by invisible strings.
Sasthi and Asma tried to pull her out. But their mortal strength was slight compared to the inhuman power they helped to escape.
“Kiva!” They yelled until their voices grew hoarse. There was nothing they could do to help her. The house as no longer visible as the mass of tornado sucked everything into it. Sasthi tried to protect Asma, but the girl stood staring at the disaster. A form rose into the sky dancing its way into the oblivion. An eerie laughter made them cower and run for safety.
“Granny, why?” Asma whispered regretting her choice. “You used me.” Tears stained her pale cheeks as she collapsed under a nearby tree.
“Dad?” Asma whispered, standing at the main door of her house. It was evening the next day by the time they reached her house. The car broke down midway. They walked for ten kilometers and hitchhiked the rest of the way.
“Asma! What happened? Are you alright, baby? Who is this woman?” Her mother rushed to hug her. Sasthi stood aside ready to run away. She explained to Asma that she was a criminal. The girl wouldn’t listen.
“Asma, child. Tell us.”
She did, telling them about the house, about Kiva, and about the great grandmother. “I’m sorry. I should have listened to you. I’m sorry.”
“Shh! It’s okay. It’s all over now.” Her mother soothed her.
“You are back safe. We don’t care for anything else.”
Asma introduced Sasthi as a friend who helped her. Later that night, after a good bath and dinner, Asma told her parents about Sasthi’s life.
“Please believe me.” Sasthi pleaded, teary-eyed.
As criminal lawyers, they were accustomed to the harsh realities of life. Her father agreed to find out everything while her mother said she would fight the case in court.
“She will be delivered justice.” They promised.
“You will stay with us, Sasthi. Once you recover your health, we can find you a job in a safe environment. The case will also be closed by then. You can take my word for it.” Asma’s mother assured.
“Thank you! You’ve given me much hope, I’m indebted to you forever.” Sasthi whispered.
“You saved our only child. This is the least we can do for you.”
Asma silently spoke. “I’m sorry. I made you both villains. Not anymore. I promise I’ll be good and not use my magic again.”
“You are a teenager. We knew you’d realize when you are ready.” Her mother smiled.
“I should have told you the reason instead of yelling at you. Grandmother was into black magic. She did more harm than good. I didn’t want you to follow her path. If you want, I will take you to a magician. He will train you to practice your skill.”
Asma shook her head. “Not now, dad. Maybe, one day, I will learn. For now, I want to be a normal girl. And, a little more matured, maybe.”